By Janet Burns and Jennifer Corr
On the morning of March 31, as excitement was brewing over the indictment of former U.S. President Donald Trump, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman and Nassau County Police Department Commissioner Patrick Ryder, joined by police officers and local legislators, held a press conference outside of the Nassau County Police Department headquarters in Mineola.
Blakeman and Ryder were announcing that 20 police cars would be added to the NCPD’s daily patrols.
“We are sending two messages, one to the criminals, that this is not a place where it’s going to be opportune for you to commit a crime and to our residents, our businesses and visitors and our guests, that this is a safe county and we are going to keep it safe,” said Blakeman. “So we are on the offensive, and we are going to keep it proactive. We believe that this high visibility will deter crime and will harden important assets, such as our schools, religious institutions, our shopping centers and our communities.”
“Overwatch” nuts and bolts
“We believe this is just another tool for us to be out in the community, to be visible and to have resources available at a moments notice,” Blakeman said. “The way this is designed, there will be your usual reaction to any crime or any incident which may occur in any precinct. This will be an addition to that. This will be supplementing that, so that we have a large force available at any time. They will be 15 minutes away from any place in the county.”
Ryder explained that the Nassau County Police Department have separated the county into four quadrants, and plans to roll out teams of four uniformed police officers and a supervisor who know the local times of prayer, religious observations and holiday dates, school schedules and more. “They will roll through these areas with their lights on and will act as a presence,” Ryder said. “They will stop and say hello. They will move onto others. Sometimes they will double pass and triple pass. Constant and a regular patrol is how we offset what the bad guy is thinking.”
Each area of Nassau County that the police department covers will receive equal attention, regardless of crime rates, according to police. For example, in Sea Cliff, as residents are complaining about an increase of stolen property and home break-ins, these patrols will be able to provide some additional police presence.
Lately, the trend in communities like Great Neck, Sea Cliff and Sands Point has been targeted thefts by organized theft rings, according to Ryder. He said this program could act as a deterrence. “Our job is to make sure that we continue to make this county safe, and it is a safe county,” Blakeman said. “But we have to go on the offensive and we have to be innovative and we have to be on the cutting edge and we have to stay ahead of the curve because we’re not getting any help from Albany, so we’re going to have to do it ourself in Nassau County.”
Ryder said that, prior to the press conference, the patrols had already began testing the new program, which became fully operational on April 1.
The launch of the program coincided with Ramadan, Passover, various Hindu and Sikh festivals and Easter, as well as the indictment of Trump. On April 1, when Florida Gov. Rob DeSantis made a stop at the Cradle of Aviation in Garden City for his book tour and campaign talk, as supporters of Trump and some critics rallied outside.
To wit: as soon as the opportunity for questions arose at the NCPD press conference on March 31, journalists began asking Executive Blakeman for his thoughts on the current criminal case against former president Trump, a topic on which Blakeman was happy to oblige.
Pinning down purpose and avoiding overreach
According to police accountability advocates, questions do remain about the increased patrols program and exactly how it will be enacted and administered in our county.
For example, Blakeman stated during the press conference that Nassau’s “Overwatch” program would be similar to other programs rolled out around the country, and specifically said it would be modeled after the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) “Team Hercules” program.
Created soon after September 11, 2001 by then-NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, “Team Hercules” exercises combined aspects of the NYPD’s large and varied Counterterrorism Bureau, which overlaps in some practices with its Special Operations Bureau (SOB), and with its Emergency Service Unit, a part of the SOB, whose vehicles include heavy equipment for doing things like clearing road obstructions and knocking down doors.
As the website Police1.com described it, the Hercules team is or was “an elite, heavily armed, semi-tactical police unit that appears out of thin air.” According to various news articles mentioning Hercules exercises, participating units oftened traveled in unmarked cars, and were known to pop up in public places with police canines and tactical gear.
In an article on the history of the NYPD’s post-9/11 counterterrorism work, City Journal explained in 2021, “The department has largely abandoned the Hercules exercises, which sent dozens of police vehicles and support cars to random spots in a display of force … ‘I wanted the WOW factor,’ [former commissioner] Kelly explained.’”
What Nassau County officials have described about “Overwatch” so far makes it sound a bit different from this.
Both Blakeman and Ryder emphasized that the well-equipped teams would be “highly visible,” suggesting that patrol units will be marked cars in addition to having their lights on. Officials have also emphasized that, during the spring holiday season and the final months of school, Overwatch units will be regularly patrolling religious institutions and schools while also creating a crime-deterring presence in high-crime areas and low-crime areas in equal amounts.
In an interview with Anton Media Group, Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said it would be extremely helpful for organizations like hers and for Nassau communities to “get some clarity on what this is.”
“Firstly, if they’re talking about visibility and patrols, that makes me ask the question, are they staying in their cars, or getting out and interacting with the community? Secondly, what is this targeting, exactly? If you’re taking about protecting houses of worship over the holidays, that sounds more like guarding against a shooter situation. Or are you targeting break-ins, or shoplifting at the mall?”
“More importantly, we would want to know if [the department] has written documents establishing the parameters of this unit, the mission of this unit, and the goal of this unit. Any written document that establishes what they can and cannot do, and how will they be interacting with local police departments, and the District Attorney’s and NCPD’s gang units’ surveillance systems, and where, institutionally, this is housed.”
The Nassau County Police Department was contacted for follow-up questions and clarification on “Overwatch,” and did not respond by press time.